A morning of conversation with David Whyte and Gayle Karen Young
“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.”
I am a natural skeptic. I get itchy on the back of my neck when I’m in a room with people are universally agreeing on something. It’s a natural tendency of the artist—to question everything. Being a skeptic is a lens through which one can see the world, just as being blindly accepting can be. The challenge I’ve found in being a skeptic is in the allowing for experiences that may on the surface, make me feel uncomfortably dubious. In other words like any approach, it has the potential for both positive and negative outcomes. If you question absolutely everything all the time, it is likely you will fracture your ability to cope with reality. If you don’t ask anything, you’ll find yourself adherent to other people’s constructs of reality and have no identity yourself. I always like to think of skepticism as a sharp stick that I carry around with me. Sometimes you see something that you feel needs some poking to reveal a deeper reality or a scam. If used correctly, the stick becomes a form of play, like teasing a cat with a feather on a string. However, the key to skepticism is also knowing when not to poke because instead of a cat at the other end of the stick there is a badger.
This past Friday morning I had the privilege of sitting in a room with the poet David Whyte and his new partner Gayle Karen Young. I have been listening to and reading the words of Whyte since 2003 when one of my closest friends loaned me his CD set Clear Mind, Wild Heart. It was a difficult period of my life, and I was struggling with some competing issues that I had lost the capacity to solve on my own. My skepticism meant I assiduously avoided anything even tangentially related to the self-help section of the bookstore and I was quite foolishly, avoiding professional therapy. Although I was far from an immediate convert, eventually I opened up to the voice, and Whyte’s words of wisdom began to sink in. His perspective as a poet was critical for me because I knew that he had to be skeptical himself to be an artist and that he was also approaching life from a creative, emergent perspective. Whyte was not a guy who was going to put me in a box but rather show me the way to get out of the box I was creating for myself. His framework of looking at your life as one extended courageous conversation is something that I’ve tried to practice ever since I first heard him speak of it. It has been transformative in my ability to negotiate immensely challenging periods of my life as well as expand my own creative and professional practices. In other words, David Whyte is the closest thing to a guru I’ve ever had.
I attended last Friday’s session Half A Shade Braver: Leadership In A Time of Magnified Uncertainty on behalf of my nonprofit in the hopes of gaining some wisdom on not just the dynamics of our organization and how we could enhance it, but also how I might be able to be a source of imagination, openness, and encouragement to our staff in these very challenging times. Joining Whyte was his soon to be wife, Gayle Karen Young. She is a psychologist and previously held the role of Chief Talent and Culture Officer of the Wikimedia Foundation. Whyte was embarking on a new tact that was away from his original solo performance. Now he was teaching with another person who was blending her ideas and dynamics with his. More challenging still, he was doing with not just a business partner, but a partner of intimacy. In other words, he was doubling down on magnified uncertainty for himself. For a man who is 62, I found this a very inspiring concept before we even got into the conversation of those three hours.
At the core of David Whyte’s poetry and his leadership practice is this idea of “the conversational nature of reality.” He believes poetry is a gateway to understanding the world and better understanding ourselves the communities in which we live and work. Young leveraged this theory that morning by getting us to look at the way in which our own natural perspective could be preventing us from understanding and communicating with others who don’t share that perspective. America is very, very polarized right now and most of the people I know well couldn’t imagine sitting in a room with a Trump supporter. We are tearing at the seams of our republic because we’re losing our ability to hold a poetic conversation with each other. It’s an us or them mentality. We all know from history that when dialogue fails us the inevitability of war pervades.
For fourteen years now I’ve have returned to the writing and teachings of Whyte when I’m feeling adrift or lacking inspiration in my own life. The urgency of the poetic voice is in its insistence to open us up to a wider experience. To live as Camus said is to “Live to the point of tears.” We strive in our lives for comfort and security in order we think to avoid pain and suffering, but the truth is that suffering is unavoidable. Becoming a better person and leading others to become better human beings requires creating “an invincible summer” within us in order weather the persistence of winter. The conversational nature of reality is a matter of us being present and holding the tension of opposing ideas, views, and voices. Taoists refer to this practice as the Middle Path or Middle Way. Whyte and Young shared that by examining our viewpoints of the world, we should examine not just how those serve us, but also look at how they can fail us as well. In examining the imperfections of our own philosophical choices, we can then open ourselves up to other viewpoints, no matter how radical or repugnant. It all begins with a conversation, and real conversation is hard.